TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, is a category of electrical modalities that we use in physiotherapy to treat pain, inflammation, muscle spasms, weakness, and other neuromuscular disorders. If you have been a patient of physiotherapy before and received TENS then you just may know it as something that feels funny but helps decrease the pain. The most common uses is to decrease pain, but we often get asked what exactly is TENS, and how effective it is. So we will cover that here.
How does TENS work?
TENS works by sending your brain mixed signals. Think of it like when you accidentally scrape your arm or leg on something. What do you do? You rub it. Why? What does this do that helps? It sends mixed signals to your brain that can block or scramble the pain signals. Think of this like two people trying to get through a tiny door… it just doesn’t work or can be more difficult than one person walking through a large door. We must add that this is only a theory of how it works.
How is TENS applied?
TENS is applied via a machine that is either rather large and only used in a physiotherapy clinic, or it can also be delivered via a portable unit that you can wear on your belt or carry with you. We apply TENS by placing small electrodes on the injured part that will transmit the electrical signal, typically a tingling or pins and needles sensation, into your body.
Is TENS safe?
In general TENS is extremely safe if used properly. Especially if you consider all of the side effects of drugs used to treat pain. TENS only uses a very low level current and is only applied to your tolerance. The main side effect, if any, is occasionally people are allergic to the gel used as an adhesive to stick the pads to your skin. We also won’t typically use TENS on small children, or over the anterior neck and head. Other contraindications are people with pacemakers, epilepsy, or if a patient has poor circulation in the area.
How effective is TENS?
The question most asked and researched regarding TENS. The answer… It’s still up in the air. Research has shown little evidence in its effectiveness for reducing pain or improving healing long term. Short term effects while the machine is being used and even shortly after have been recorded and proven, but not by all. To most physiotherapists it is a way we can help relieve short term pain for our patients without the use of drugs. That in itself is reason enough to use it. And most patients like it, and request it. So because of the minimal to no side effects and pain relieving properties (even if short term) we continue to use it.
If you have any questions about TENS and whether or not it would be helpful for your condition or injury you can always ask your physiotherapist. Don’t have one? Stop by one of our physiotherapy clinics today and see how physiotherapy, and possibly TENS, can help relieve you of your pain and limitations. See you soon!